A career in libraries can take unexpected directions. In these three articles, we offer advice from those in the trenches on how to climb the career ladder successfully—or gracefully climb down from a job that’s just not right.
Library jobs change for many reasons: community needs shift, technology automates old tasks or enables new ones, new leadership sets new priorities, or economic setbacks spur pruning. The results for those already in the job can be a challenge—and sometimes, the best course is to exit and regroup.
How can librarians successfully navigate such a detour in their career trajectory? It’s not easy to attempt to change a workplace problem—or simply a bad fit—from within, decide when to part ways, offer substantive feedback without burning bridges, or explain to new potential employers what happened without casting blame.
Because such topics are often little discussed, librarians in those situations may feel alone or lack examples from which to learn. To encourage frank discussion, several librarians interviewed for this article have been granted anonymity.
When the Honeymoon is Over
“In my first administrative post, I was eager to provide services that would help students, faculty, and community members succeed,” reveals Gavin Woltjer, describing his early days as dean of library services for an academic library. He understood the challenges of academic library budgets—“often the first to be cut”—and still managed to open a university archive and add research databases, creating revenue streams as needed.
However, despite his advocacy, university administration kept pulling from the library to fund other projects. As administrative support waned, Woltjer realized the situation wouldn’t improve under his leadership. He planned his departure, securing budget allocations for existing projects and helping staff develop skills needed to move work forward between deans. “I acted as cheerleader,” Woltjer says. “I encouraged them to…be proactive about where they wanted the library to go.”
Woltjer, now director at the Billings Public Library, MT, challenged himself to become a better administrator by enrolling in Harvard’s Library Leadership in a Digital Age program.
Sometimes, the issue is closer to the front lines. One librarian who wishes to remain anonymous had just started at a recently remodeled urban library when, six months in, he “noticed something weird” about tensions between staff and upper management. “The [relatively new] director didn’t trust anyone to do their jobs properly,” he says. Staff always “felt uneasy” initiating public services, fearing they’d be looked down on for their ideas. “The director always talked about a ‘big picture’ view, but [it] was confusing and [contrasted sharply with] how the community used the library.”
The teen librarian watched morale erode as staff realized that this was the new normal. “It was a weird moment of great opportunity and change, and it all just faded so quickly,” he continues. “Everyone was so worn down from being told what to do and that their ideas were [less clever than the director’s] that everyone just stopped going the extra mile.” Tensions between union and management exacerbated the situation, breaking down trust among staffers who feared getting “ratted out.”
“I knew that if I wanted to remain positive about public libraries, I had to get away,” said the then–teen librarian, who now credits his experience with preparing him for library directorship. “I understand how important it is to lead with confidence, [respect your staff], and let them try new things…at all times.”
Julie Strange found “the perfect job” right out of library school: operations manager for Maryland’s chat reference service AskUsNow! (AUN). Despite the usual challenges—organizational politics, responsibility growth, budget uncertainty, staff resistance to change—Strange loved it.
Eventually, the balance shifted. Strange felt that AUN was often ignored; though highly praised, AUN wasn’t financially supported by contributing systems and had no funding to grow from pilot to statewide service. She and her staff were held to traditional work limits—“No one else teleworks here”—despite the very different nature of remote reference work. Frustrated, Strange realized that she was stuck; other states’ virtual reference services were shrinking or shuttered. “Once I knew I needed to exit…I didn’t know where to go,” admits Strange. It turns out, the answer wasn’t in libraries at all: today, Strange is owner and chief baker of Noshy, a successful start-up cookie company in Virginia.
When First Isn’t Best
Being the first in a new position can be both an opportunity and a risk. “Only one job I’ve ever had existed before I held it; this job was no exception,” explains one anonymous high-level academic librarian. “In most cases, these jobs aren’t well thought through, particularly in terms of how staff will accept ‘new’ work and…how responsibilities will shift to the new position from existing ones.”
Based on interviews, she believed that the job had peer support, an engaged university librarian (UL), and a collaborative decision-making process. That didn’t last long. “In our first meeting, the UL had clearly made no effort to set up [an] orientation plan,” even though the academic librarian was a first-time administrator. A few weeks later, the UL reversed a top-level decision directly affecting the librarian’s department, “and [they] were utterly shocked when I expressed concern about not being…told about it beforehand.” The librarian soon realized that no one had actually read her position’s description, nor had stakeholders been consulted about it. “The cumulative effect of these experiences,” combined with personality clashes and an unfriendly culture, “left me traumatized…. I left the job after a little more than a year.”
Amanda McClellan’s first library job was also brand new: digital services librarian at a community college. “The job listing had a small percentage of time [allotted to] reference duties,” says McClellan. “It worked out to be a couple hours a week, and I figured I could use it as a learning experience.”
After moving halfway across the country, McClellan discovered she’d been scheduled on and off the reference desk every few hours; she was supposed to overhaul the website (her primary responsibility) while also providing reference. “A couple hours a week” became four hours a day, more if the desk was short-staffed. McClellan spoke to her supervisor and was essentially told, “Sorry, we lied.”
Hamstrung by the 2008 economic crisis, McClellan stayed for five years. She pursued her interests and participated in a local library consortium, leveraging her connections into successively more satisfying roles at other organizations; she’s now head of applications and digital services at a midsize university and an adjunct lecturer on library technology.
When Title Changes Change Expectations
By contrast, one second-career librarian found her first library job wonderful, overseeing a high-visibility e-learning project at a midsize academic library. Buoyed by her initial success, she accepted another contract, this time on a team of academic librarians. What she didn’t expect was that her job shift would change her director’s opinion: “What had started as a genuinely collegial, almost mentoring relationship…turned into an outright combative one,” she says. She soon shared frustrations she’d previously observed but not experienced. “The chief librarian found any sign of innovation or independent thinking on the librarians’ parts to be a direct challenge to their leadership.” A consummate micromanager, they either quashed or took credit for staff initiatives. “I think that [my] previous career…as a leader made me particularly annoyed at their inability to be a leader worthy of respect,” she adds.
Fortunately, the librarian had already accepted a position at another institution as things came to a head. When she listened to a colleague preparing for an event that had already been an issue, the chief librarian accused her of insubordination and threatened her contract. Given confidence by her offer letter, the librarian walked out on her own terms, with only some regret. “I won’t deny it was pretty satisfying to be able to speak my mind…but the feeling is more fleeting than you’d expect,” she admits.
WHEN THERE ARE Changes at the Top
Souring relationships with immediate supervisors or colleagues can make or break a library job, but conflicts with leadership affect the entire organization. “Things were fine under my first two directors,” begins a one-time head of tech services, “My third director was hired, and things went downhill.” Favoritism and ill-designed restructuring followed. The librarian quickly found a position at another institution, as did at least two colleagues. “Decades of institutional experience walked out the door within a few months.”
For directors, the risks are higher still since board members can change frequently. One director had held the position for several years when long-simmering issues on the board caused a dramatic shift in leadership and, subsequently, priorities. She chose to leave when she saw that her vision for the library no longer matched the board’s. “It was the right decision for me,” she laments, “but it wasn’t easy to say goodbye to a place where I had worked so hard…and accomplished so much.” She calls her new directorship—and new board—a “platinum lining.”
Advice from those Who’ve Been There
The oft-repeated lesson from those we spoke to is, “Ask questions.” Kendra Jones specifies, “Ask all the questions you can, even if they seem obvious. Asking questions helps [ensure] that the change has been fully fleshed out and you can be more prepared for anything that may come your way.” Day-to-day conditions of the work are rarely touched upon in the interview process, yet they can make or break the experience in practice. Another librarian whose noisy office makes focusing impossible, adds, “Ask if you can come in and sit where you’d be working to see [what the daily environment is like].”
Ask even more questions if you need to relocate in this highly mobile field. Moving for a job is destabilizing enough—be sure the job is worth the upheaval. “I refuse to relocate for work now,” says one librarian who was burned by the experience.
McClellan stresses getting additional perspectives. “Find a mentor [whom] you can trust [not necessarily someone at your library] and reach out to librarians at nearby institutions…. Believe in yourself: if a job isn’t a good fit, that’s not your fault and don’t blame the job. Just keep building your skills…you’ll find a better fit.”
Woltjer and another director who wishes to remain anonymous offer similar advice. “Keep a positive attitude, be flexible, don’t compromise your personal integrity and values, and always have a plan B,” says one. Woltjer’s take: “Don’t ignore warning signs, and don’t try to ‘tough it out.’ There’s no medal for staying in a position that’s eating away at you. If it’s possible, don’t be afraid to jump without an obvious landing.”
Finally, know when and how to take that final stand. One anonymous commenter says simply, “Stand up for what’s right,” but another suggests more caution. “Decide if a given issue is the hill you want to die on, if it’s worth it to you to stand on principle (including in defense of your colleagues) for something that might haunt you later. Try to take a couple of steps back rather than letting yourself get carried along to a breaking point.”